The legal battle over President Trump’s new census power grab has only begun.
But the Trump administration may be on the cusp of winning a larger war to create a skewed 2020 count that will boost the electoral advantages of whiter parts of the country, to the detriment of more diverse, urban and lower-income populations.
Democrats and former Census leaders laid out their concerns over the scheme during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday.
At the hearing, Democrats accused the Trump administration of seeking to rush the 2020 census count so that it can enact a newly announced policy that will punish immigrant-rich states. The Bureau’s director, Steven Dillingham, tried his best to distance himself from the ways in which the White House appears to be hijacking the count.
The hearing was called in response to a policy President Trump unveiled last week instructing the Census Bureau to change the way it assembles the data that determines how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state gets.
Specifically, Trump directed the Census Bureau to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count — an approach that runs afoul of 200 years of practice and broadly held views about the Constitution. If allowed to be implemented, it will shift congressional representation away from immigrant-rich states and towards those with whiter populations.
What has become clear since that policy was announced is that last week’s directive was only one aspect of the gambit the administration is now pushing.
The White House has also sought to keep the Census Bureau on a timeline to deliver its data for congressional apportionment by the end of this year — a timeline the Census Bureau’s own experts have said is no longer workable, given the pandemic. Secretary Ross himself requested in April a four-month extension from Congress on those data delivery deadlines, but now it appears the administration is walking away from that request to ensure that Trump will still be in office when the data is delivered.
The Senate GOP seems to be on board with plan, but it presents a potential flashpoint with Democrats as they negotiate the next round of COVID-19 legislation.
The other upshot is that a rushed count stands to have a biggest negative impact on communities of color and low-income people, who, according to experts, are more likely to go uncounted if the Census Bureau’s operational plans are condensed.
“When you know where the African Americans and Hispanics live in the cities, the pattern is very clear,” Kim Brace, a redistricting expert, told TPM, while pointing to the Bureau’s information about who has responded to the census so far.
That means that even if courts block the apportionment policy Trump announced, he will reap some similar benefits from a rushed count that diminishes the political representation given to more diverse, urban and thus-Democratic leaning parts of the country.
“I am concerned that the administration is seeking to rush the process and sacrifice the accuracy of the census for political gain,” Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said at Wednesday’s hearing.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Dillingham did not endorse this plot. But it doesn’t seem like he’s doing much to stand in the way of it either.
He testified that he found out the new anti-immigrant apportionment policy was in the works when he read about it in the news media. Asked if he or anyone from the Bureau had offered any input on it, he said, “I certainly did not and I am not aware of others in the Census Bureau that did.’
He also said he had not been involved in the negotiations with Congress over moving back the timeline, so the Census Bureau would have the time it needed to finish the count.
But, notably, Dillingham also refused to back a comment one of the Bureau’s own experts had made about the need for an extension. The expert, who is leading the field operations for the 2020 count, had said in May that because of the pandemic, the Bureau had already “passed the point where we could even meet the” requirement that it deliver the data by the end of the year.
“I can’t agree with [him],” Dillingham said Wednesday, as the Bureau was “doing continuing assessments.”
The committee’s Democrats did not have much patience for Dillingham’s efforts to keep his hands clean of the White House’s machinations.
“You know your name will go down in history if this is the worst census ever conducted by the United States government,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) told Dillingham. “You’re not going to run away and say that, ‘This was only because of the Trump administration,’ later on. You will be responsible. Your name will be associated with it.”
Former Census directors who testified earlier in the hearing put in stark relief the stakes of this current wrangling and the consequences of a hasty census.
“I was extremely disappointed when it turned out that they were not going to get the four month extension going on into 2021,” said Kenneth Prewitt, who led the Bureau between 1998-2001, said. “In my sense, the chance of having a census accurate enough to use is unclear — very, very unclear whether we’ll even have a census. That is why a debate about the illegals or the undocumented is besides the point, if we’re not even going to have a census that we can take to the American people.”